Family, Kids & Relationships

One Year In, What Needs to Change about How We Talk to Our Kids

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As we hit the one-year mark of the pandemic, many parents have noticed that their kids (particularly teens and tweens) are still feeling despair, but are becoming less likely to want to talk about what’s going on. Whereas at the beginning of the pandemic, kids may have been more vocal or outwardly upset about all of the sudden changes, now many kids (many adults too!) are acting more withdrawn, and just trying to get through each day on autopilot.

A survey of 1,500 students showed that 67 percent of teens “pretend to feel fine so they don’t worry others”—despite the fact that 71 percent of teens are feeling anxious or depressed about school. So it probably isn’t your imagination if you think your teen or tween is holding back from discussing how they’re feeling lately.

What worked to connect with your child, cheer them up, or connect with them a year ago might not be working anymore. So here are some ideas for changing your approach and finding new ways to support your child and get them to express their emotions and needs.

Avoid being overly positive

There’s a lot to be hopeful about right now, but don’t feel like you have to constantly try to talk kids into seeing the up-side of things. We do this to try to cheer them up or out of fear we’ll make them more upset if we acknowledge how terrible something is, but that only makes them feel like we don’t understand what they’re going through. Besides, glossing over their feelings is not going to help them learn how to become stronger, and it’s not going to help your relationship either. Instead of trying to convince them of anything, focus on being supportive.

Communication expert Dave Frees recommends that when your teen says that they “can’t” do something, instead of immediately contradicting them with “Yes, you can!” try saying something like: “I know you feel like you can’t, right now. But what would happen if you did?” The beginning of that sentence makes them feel validated and like you are agreeing with them, while the rest helps them see that you believe in their abilities.

Find creative ways to express difficult emotions

Letting kids feel badly when things are, well, bad, can be a key to eventually helping them feel better. Think about how you feel when you’re really angry, frustrated, or sad, and what you want to do with your body. Encourage healthy ways to feel these feelings through physical activity, creative expression, or validating media. And during the pandemic, you can expect to have these types of emotions even more than usual, so plan ahead for it.

For example, you could allow time for a rant session each night, where you take turns getting to let out all of your frustrations with no interruptions from family members—or encourage kids to record the rants as private voice memos to either delete or play back one day when all of this is over. You could listen to angry music together, set up a punching bag, scribble away in an uncensored rage journal, or release a family scream every morning. Find something that works for your family.

Acknowledge that it’s especially hard for them

The pandemic has been particularly hard on teens and tweens who are naturally focused on developing social lives and relationships. As a parent, you may be sad about not being able to see more people, but you can’t fully grasp what it’s like to live like this during your most formative years. So show your child that you understand why all of these restrictions are a bigger deal to them, and that you truly are trying to see things from their perspective.

Think back to how you felt about your first relationship or crush, the importance of making friends in high school, and what a huge deal prom was. Psychiatrist and president of the Child Mind Institute, Harold Koplewicz, MD, suggests, “I think the most important thing parents have to do is have a discussion with their teens validating how much worse this is for them than for their younger siblings or for their parents. Because at the end of the day if you’re 40, 50, 60 years old, one year is a blip in your life.”

Avoid lessons and lectures

Don’t try to tack important life lessons onto every talk you have or challenge they face. Kids will eventually tune out and may be less likely to want to talk in the future. Besides, these lectures often become more about you and your own thoughts rather than about what your child really needs.

Instead, try to focus on what they have done well. Say “I’m so proud of you…” and be specific about what you’ve noticed—not necessarily a big academic achievement, but something smaller like making a noticeable effort to participate in class, or telling you what was on their mind when it doesn’t come naturally to them, or simply getting through the week without the usual door-slamming.

Ask how they feel…and really listen

Instead of asking why something happened (like a failed test), which can make kids feel like they’re being judged and cause them to get defensive, ask how they feel about what happened. This approach can help you get to the root of the problem without making your child clam up, because it signals them that you respect them and you’re there to support them.

Then the next—very hard but very important—step is to give them space and listen patiently to what they say, without interjecting your own thoughts and opinions.

Lighten the mood

Parents should never make fun of a child or the issues they’re having, but you can use occasional self-deprecating humor as a way to bond with your child. For example, at dinnertime, tell each other a “pandemic fail” from your day, like when you didn’t know you were unmuted and were crunching your chips in a Zoom meeting, or you forgot your mask and were dodging behind hedges when people passed by. These anecdotes might be a bit sad, boring, weird, and funny all rolled into one, but even a little smile or laugh can break the tension and open up opportunities for more sharing.

Challenge them to voice an opinion

Kids often love to share their own opinion, so try encouraging them to talk by posing questions such as “If it were up to you, how would you improve your school experience right now?” or “How would you reorganize our family and social life to make it better, but still safe, during the rest of the pandemic?”

They may not be able to realistically implement all of the solutions they dream up, but after some discussion and compromises, the two of you could come up with a plausible suggestion to email to a school administrator, or a new arrangement for your family to try out. Either way, you’ll hear more specifics about what’s bothering them, without having to force an official “feelings talk.”

Change the scenery

Getting your kid to open up can be easier if you find a casual setting for it. Instead of sitting them down for an intimidating talk, try chatting during a car ride, where you don’t have to maintain eye contact. Sitting side by side on the couch while watching a show together can be a nice way to connect, with quick chats during commercial breaks. Making dinner together or getting their help on a hands-on household project can help loosen you both up and take some of the pressure off of talking about a sensitive subject.

The pandemic has changed a lot of things, but it hasn’t changed the desire to stay connected to our kids—if anything, it’s only made it stronger. The unusual period of history we’re all living through might just require some unusual, new ways of communicating. 

Joanna Eng is a staff writer and digital content specialist at ParentsTogether. She lives with her wife and two kids in New York, where she loves to hike, try new foods, and check out way too many books from the library.